ome call it conversation. Others call it providence. All I know is that God has an amazing ability to teach me through the thoughts and actions of others. Encounters with Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, secular moderns and postmoderns, and conservative Adventists have all enriched my thinking far beyond initial expectation. So I have gradually discovered that I learn much more from people I disagree with than from people I agree with.
In that case (if you don’t misunderstand me), I can’t think of anyone who could teach me more than Osama bin Laden. But before September 11, 2001, I was barely aware of his existence.
The Shock of It!
My encounter with September 11 began in The Netherlands. I landed in Amsterdam that morning to attend a pastors’ conference out in the flat Dutch countryside. That evening at supper, nearly three hours after the first plane struck the North Tower, I was alerted to these earthshaking events by a pastor from Croatia. He told me that CNN was available upstairs on a big screen.
For me those television images cut deeper than for the hundreds of others watching with me. Not only was I the only American in the room at first, New York City is my hometown. I grew up in New York. I’ve walked those very streets many times. No matter what perspective of the tragedy was being shown, I knew whether we were looking north, south, east, or west. I knew what I was looking at. I knew the likely location of the camera. In my mind’s eye I could see, hear, touch, and even smell aspects of each scene that were uniquely my own. They tell me that the Twin Towers were lousy architecture. All I know is that every time I view the downtown of New York City without them, I feel a hole deep in my soul.
This life-changing event plunged me into a series of encounters that have changed my life. I began reading the Koran and other Muslim books. I immersed myself in the news media and quietly renewed underground contacts I had developed in my study of Y2K. I have learned all I could about the agenda of Osama bin Laden and those who think and believe like him. I have developed relationships with many secular people—the event created a common bond between believer and nonbeliever that did not seem to be there before. I will never be the same. I could reflect on these various encounters at great length and have done so in another context.* Here I would like to explore a few thoughts about suffering that my encounter with 9/11 opened up.
Was God Unable to Stop It?
As CNN showed the horrific video clips of the attack again and again that first day, I was particularly riveted by the image of the second plane approaching from the south, dipping its wings to the left at the last second, and disappearing into the South Tower. As I viewed the scene again and again I felt like reaching out into the screen, grabbing hold of the plane, and saving the towers and their occupants.
Is that what God must be feeling? I suddenly thought to myself. Did God want to prevent this as much as I did? Then why did it happen? Was God unable to stop it? Did God decide not to intervene?
Some time after September 11, I read the story of George Sleigh (USA Today, December 19, 2001). He was a manager at the American Bureau of Shipping, on the ninety-first floor of the North Tower of the WTC. He was on the phone in his office when he heard the roar of jet engines. Looking out his window, he had just enough time to think, The wheels are up, the underbelly is white, and man, that guy is low.
It was 8:46 a.m., and a Boeing 767 airplane was headed toward him at 500 miles per hour, with 92 people and more than 50 tons of jet fuel aboard. The jet exploded into the building at floors 93 through 98 just above him. The walls, the ceiling, and the bookshelves in his office crumbled.
Crawling out from under the rubble, Sleigh looked up at the exposed beams and concrete underside of the ninety-second floor. What he didn’t know at the time was that his concrete ceiling was the floor of a giant tomb for more than 1,300 people. Not a single person survived on any of the floors above him; but on his floor and below nearly everyone lived to see another day. The line of survival was as thin as a steel beam or a concrete slab. All of those on the ninety-second floor died, and everyone on the ninety-first floor lived.
Sleigh commented later, “Sometimes, I think it was God’s providence that spared me; other times I wonder why me and not others. I realize I am a very fortunate man.”
Like George Sleigh, many survivors of the tragedy at the World Trade Center wonder why they were spared that day, while so many of their friends were lost. They often believe that their survival was a call to a new level of commitment to God and to right living. But why did God go out of His way to preserve some lives and not others? Or did God have anything at all to do with it, one way or the other?
The Problem With Miracles
In the March 21, 2002, issue of Adventist Review, Stephen Chavez reflected on the arbitrary nature of the events on September 11 and what they had to say about God. Chavez stated that there are two problems with miracles. For one thing, it is hard to tell the difference between a miracle and a coincidence. If a commuter plane goes down and half the people are killed, how many of the survivors were saved miraculously and how many were saved simply because they were sitting in the “right” section of the plane?
Which raises a second problem with miracles. If God could save some, why wasn’t everyone miraculously preserved? Tragedy is difficult enough to take by itself. But the preservation of even one person in the midst of slaughter, as wondrous as that may be, serves as the frame for a giant question mark regarding the loss of so many.
In the tragedies of September 11 thousands were killed and even more thousands were spared. There is no detectible pattern among the saved or the lost that would offer any explanation. Sometimes it was as simple as who was located on the ninety-first floor and who was located on the ninety-second.
For years the book of Job has been a great frustration to me. I have gone there seeking answers to the above questions and have found only more questions! I have found my own explanations for suffering given and then mocked by Scripture! I have come away thinking that God should have been able to do a better job of explaining things. The 9/11 tragedy pushed me back to Job, and I think these events have brought me for the first time some understanding of this mysterious book.
What We Learn From Job
What was God doing on September 11? Could the message of Job be of some assistance? At first glance I was disappointed again. The arguments of Job and his three friends sound familiar, but none of them—not even Job’s—comes anywhere close to the reality of Job’s situation. Then Elihu comes along and rightly criticizes both Job and his three friends, yet repeats many of the same things they had already said! Finally God comes along and compounds the confusion, rebuking Job for speaking out of ignorance, and then telling his friends that they were wrong and Job was right! Go figure!
Clearly anyone who comes to this biblical play expecting all the answers to the problem of suffering is likely to be disappointed. Job’s friends are full of answers, many of which are still offered today. But all of the answers get mocked at some point in the book. When God appears, things get even more frustrating. The answer to Job’s suffering has already been given at the beginning of the book, yet God says nothing at all about it. There are no answers, just a sense of God’s overpowering greatness.
But perhaps that’s the main point of the book. None of the general answers to the problem of suffering had anything to do with why Job was suffering. The real reason Job suffers has to do with what sounds like a wager between God and Satan in the heavenly court (Job 1; 2). No statement in the earthly part of the book (chapters 3–42) ever returns to that issue, not even the statements of God. So the point of the book seems to be that the limited context of human experience does not allow a satisfying intellectual answer to the problem of suffering. Even if God were to appear to us, we wouldn’t have the context to understand.
The reason suffering rarely makes sense on this earth is that our lives are affected by wider issues in the universe as a whole. God’s context is far bigger than the perspective of a single planet alone. God’s will is not always done on this earth. As God asserts in the book of Job, to try to explain September 11, the Holocaust, and similar events is like commanding a day to dawn, roping a whale, or walking on the floor of the ocean. It is just not a realistic enterprise for humans confined to this earth.
Why then was Job satisfied with God’s answer, even though it was not a real answer? If nothing else, it was because God cared enough to answer. While Job doesn’t get any answers from God, he does encounter Him, and that is enough. Knowing about God is not the answer, knowing God is. To know God is to trust Him.
Perhaps the best news in the book of Job is that undeserved suffering does not last forever. It ended for Job and it will one day end for the human race as a whole. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “The earth is like a stage and we are merely players.” One day a much bigger picture will be revealed.
The Ultimate Act of Terrorism
So why September 11 and similar tragedies in the course of history? There is no satisfactory answer now. Yet it is possible to discern a merciful hand in the events, in spite of their horrific nature. The toll at the World Trade Center could easily have been tens of thousands dead—if the planes had struck a few hours later in the day, if they had struck the towers at a lower level, if the towers had collapsed more quickly, if evacuations hadn’t started so quickly and efficiently in the South Tower. As horrible as the events were, it could have been, in a sense should have been, much worse.
For those of us who experienced it, September 11 was an unimaginable expression of evil at its worst. But September 11 was not the most evil act of all time. The Holocaust, as chillingly brutal and unfair as it was, was not the most evil act of all time. The Inquisition, the Crusades, the genocides of Armenians, Bosnians, Rwandans, and Cambodians in the last century, the slave trade across the Atlantic—all of these qualify as acts of systematic premeditated evil. But none of them qualify as the most evil act of all time.
The cross was the most evil act of all time. When human beings, for temporary and limited political advantage, crucified the God who came down and lived among us, they acted in the most incomprehensible, unjust, and evil manner possible. In rejecting Jesus, they were doing more than just condemning an innocent man to death; they were destroying the source of their own life and rejecting their own place in the universe. The cross of Jesus Christ is an evil act of infinite proportions. If the human race is capable of such an act, no evil action is unimaginable.
But there is a silver lining to the dark cloud of human evil. God has turned the cross into a powerful act of reversal. The greatest evil ever done has been transformed by God into the most powerful act of goodness ever performed. By death God brings life. Through defeat comes victory. Through shame, humiliation, and rejection come glory, grace, and acceptance. Through the cross God has turned the tables on evil and death. The greatest evil has become the basis for the greatest good.
That suggests to me that all the good that has come as a result of September 11 is not just an accident. God’s hand was there—guiding, saving, helping, even in the midst of tragedy, suffering, and death. As a result of this evil act, millions of people have made fresh commitments to family and service to others. As a result of this evil act, many people have turned away from greed, corruption, and empty display. As a result of this evil act, many who had forgotten God have turned to Him with a passion not seen in decades.
In the light of the cross there is plenty we can do in the face of terrorism. We can learn to love our neighbors the way God does. We can help to build bridges between groups in our communities. We can make a daily effort to project love and care into the world, and not return evil for evil. We can visit the sick, feed the hungry, and comfort the suffering. We can even learn to love our enemies the way Jesus did! The cross demonstrates that in the grace and power that come only from God, evil can be transformed into good.
That’s why I believe that God can be trusted after September 11. Wars, violence, and terrorism are born in the heart. But the cross has exposed the fundamental weakness of evil: it can be overcome with good. So I have become willing to fight evil wherever it is found—among “them” (whoever they are), among “us” (whoever we are), but most of all “in here,” inside of me.
I think it’s time to start a new conspiracy in this world, a conspiracy with a world-changing message: Evil can be overcome with good. This is my mission. I can’t wish the perpetrators of 9/11 well for what they did, but in some strange way, they’ve given me a new vision.
*Jon Paulien, The Day That Changed the World (Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2002).